Our UConn 4-H program has a positive impact on youth every day, and one of our youth, volunteers, and educators from Fairfield County explain more in our latest podcast episode. Learn more and listen in at s.uconn.edu/fairfield-fair – and join us this weekend for their 4-H Fair at Connecticut’s Beardsley Zoo.
Brenda Sanchez recently joined our team as an Outreach Nutrition Education Assistant with the Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program (EFNEP) in our Bethel office in Fairfield County. She joins us from experiences working in the medical field and with the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, where she spent 11 years as a peer counselor and certified lactation consultant.
Many members of Brenda’s family are involved in medical and nutrition positions, and the role with Extension builds off her previous experiences as well. We sat down with Brenda to learn more about her background and role with Extension.
What is your area of interest and how did you get interested in it?
I like anything related to the medical field as well as working in the community. Working with the community gives me great satisfaction. Knowing I have helped and impacted their lives for the betterment of themselves and their families is just a great feeling.
I got interested in these areas by seeing them modeled on in my family. I had fitting examples of love towards the community through many family members. I was also exposed to the medical field through family members since I was a kid, so I became passionate about it.
What excites you the most about working with UConn Extension?
Knowing I will help families and young people achieve better eating habits and make better lifestyle choices in their nutrition. I like to do service and work with the community and help them make better choices and feed their family.
What is one thing you hope people will learn from you and your work?
I hope I can help people embrace a lifestyle that they did not imagine was possible for themselves and their families, by choosing, preparing, and managing a variety of foods available in the market, I hope to offer choices that might seem doable even in a low-income budget or as a single mom raising her children. I’m also passionate about helping mothers and their children.
One thing everyone should know about nutrition is to grab those resources that are out there for them and make the best possible nutrition and diet choices and enjoy it as a family.
What advice do you have for parents with picky eaters?
Modeling behavior is one thing that always works. I modeled in front of my own children, and they all eat everything. Parents I’ve worked with also have success with it. The more variety of foods you can include in a diet, the more benefits there are. Also, tell children about the benefits different foods have, it engages them.
What is your favorite thing to do in Connecticut?
Family time, all my family lives in Connecticut, I also enjoy the fresh air, the space and nature that Connecticut offers.
What are some of your hobbies and other interests?
I like to walk, read, and bake. I love to travel, try new foods, I love to learn about diverse cultures, their customs and beliefs.
On Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings from early spring through fall, you can find dedicated groups of Master Gardeners lovingly cultivating an organic Demonstration Vegetable Garden at the Fairfield County Extension Center site in Bethel. By summer, the garden is a beautiful oasis teeming with butterflies, and pollinators as volunteers harvest tomatoes, potatoes, beans, and other organic vegetables to donate to area food pantries. In addition to vegetables, the bountiful harvests include a variety of fresh herbs, and gorgeous annual flowers. Recently, the Master Gardeners have collaborated with Extension’s Food and Nutrition EFNEP and SNAP-Ed programs to provide clients with nutritious recipes in both Spanish and English to accompany their produce. Harvests continue all season long and food pantry drop offs are rotated to share the bounty. Among the area organizations who benefit from the donations are the Brookfield Food Pantry, Faith Food Pantry in Newtown, Daily Bread in Danbury, and the Bethel Food Pantry.
The 3,000 square foot garden was started in 2013 by a group of Master Gardener interns excited to assist food insecure clients, and at the same time educate the public about Integrated Pest Management (IPM) and best garden practices. Each year additional Master Gardeners have joined the group and added to the garden’s infrastructure. The garden now has numerous raised beds, an irrigation system, tunnels to protect brassica crops from cabbageworms, and a blueberry enclosure to keep hungry birds at bay.
Advanced Master Gardener, Andrea Sarnik, began working in the garden in 2018. In 2020, Andrea joined Barbara Stauder as a project co-captain. Andrea explains, “The garden’s primary mission is to serve as an educational tool. It does that in a multitude of ways. The garden itself is a showcase of many varieties of vegetables, fruit, herbs, and flowers. We receive many visitors on Saturdays when we open the garden during the Farmer’s Market. Visitors get ideas on things they might try and get answers to questions regarding gardening from the Master Gardener volunteers. The garden is marked with signs identifying the crops and informational signs such as companion planting and integrated pest management.”
In addition to the educational signage, a small rain garden display hugs the garden shed and a rain barrel system catches water from its roof. A three-bin compost system sits just outside the garden gate. This garden is definitely all about education, but clients are not the only ones who benefit. New interns join the group each year as they pursue their Master Gardener certification. As Andrea Sarnik adds, “Master Gardener interns obtain a broad array of information from the more senior Master Gardeners and even the seasoned gardeners continue to learn as they encounter issues and exchange information.”
Each winter the group of about 30 volunteers meet to plan for the new season. They work to extend the season by careful planning, incorporating more early and late blooming crops, seeking out pest and disease resistant varieties, and discussing other ways to increase harvests and productivity. The enthusiastic group weighs their harvests and tracks their crops with numerous spreadsheets, noting weather and pest issues. “Most years show an increase in total pounds of produce donated with our current top year total of 1365 pounds,” Andrea remarks. Clearly, the Master Gardener’s methods are successful.
This season, the group has already donated hundreds of pounds of produce, having started early harvesting garlic, onions, and cole crops. With the cool, rainy spring, the tomatoes are a bit behind with many green fruits waiting for more sunshine to sweeten and ripen them. This year, over five years after planting, the young native persimmon tree outside the garden will finally fruit. One of the young pawpaw trees also has a few potato shaped fruits for the first time. The Master Gardeners are excited by this development and are already envisioning another abundant harvest to share with their friends at the local food pantries.
To learn more about the Extension Master Gardener Program, which is offered in multiple locations throughout the state, visit our website at https://mastergardener.uconn.edu/. Applications will be available by the end of August for the 2024 program.
Article by Sandi Wilson, Fairfield County Master Gardener Coordinator
Job Opening: Assistant/Associate Cooperative Extension Educator Urban 4-H
UConn Extension is seeking applicants for a full-time (11-month), non-tenure track Assistant/Associate Extension Educator, primarily based at the Fairfield County Extension Office in Bethel, CT. Extension Educators are community-based faculty who make a difference in communities by connecting community needs with university resources. Position level/rank will be commensurate with experience working with Extension. The successful candidate shall create an active 4-H youth development program with a focus on STEM, food, and agricultural literacy.
More information and application instructions are available at s.uconn.edu/urban4-hposition
#jobs #uconn #youthdevelopment #4h #agriculture #food
Enhancing Food Security in Fairfield County
Food insecurity is not a new phenomenon, but the COVID-19 pandemic intensified the situation for many residents, including those in Fairfield County. Food banks and pantries across the state expanded their services to help the increasing numbers of food insecure families.
The pandemic introduced Heather Peracchio, an Assistant Extension Educator in our Fairfield County office with Lori Turco, the food pantry coordinator for Walnut Hill Community Church. They were introduced by Steve Harding and quickly formed a strong partnership to meet the communities’ needs. Heather works with the Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program (EFNEP) and with SNAP-Ed.
The number of families being served by the Walnut Hill Community Pantry increased because of the pandemic from 150 pre-pandemic to over 500 families. The food pantry was offered monthly before the pandemic and then shifted to weekly when the pandemic started. Staff serve three locations: the church in Bethel, Derby and New Milford. They serve over 1,500 families across the three locations from 22 towns. Some families come from as far as Stamford, Torrington, or Waterbury—there is a huge need for food resources.
The partnership between Extension and Walnut Hill Church started with Operation Community Impact— Heather wanted to help food pantries access the milk and dairy products donated by Guida’s and Cabot. Walnut Hill Church was happy to accept the donations and let Extension use their FEMA supplied 40-foot refrigerated trailer for deliveries. The Fairfield County Extension team connected food pantries throughout the area with dairy donations. Team members Edith Valiquette, Donna Liska, Linda Connelly, and the 4-H volunteers that delivered dairy were crucial to the project.
From that initial collaboration, the partnership has grown, and expanded the services offered to the community. “I connected Lori and the Walnut Hill Community Pantry to the Danbury Food Collaborative,” Heather says. “She has used that connection to establish a network of food distributions and Walnut Hill Church has become the main delivery site for all Danbury area USDA Farmers’ to Families Food Boxes. Lori also started a non-profit Community Food Rescue and is planning a Food Hub in Danbury.”
“The partnership with UConn Extension is phenomenal,” Lori says. “The only time we get dairy is in the USDA Farmers to Families Food Box or from Extension. The Extension team organized the dairy donations and facilitated funds. We were able to consistently provide milk for almost 500 families. We could buy more food with the money we have and be able to give fresh milk to everyone.”
Greenhouse Wealth Management, LLC in Westport generously donated $1500 to the effort (photo below). Ryan Callas owns the company and is a UConn alumni. He heard about the initiative through an employee whose cousin lives next door to Heather—and Ryan was happy to get involved because of the UConn ties. The initial donation from Green Wealth Management prompted other donations that further supported Operation Community Impact in Fairfield County.
Extension’s contributions extend beyond facilitating and coordinating the dairy donations for food pantries. Our educators provide resources and connections for many areas of need. For example, Heather makes videos in English and Spanish for each USDA Food Box to help recipients use the items they are receiving.
Heather creates videos where she uses the ingredients in the food boxes in recipes. She then creates a QR code that links to the video to help recipients use the products. “Her videos have friendly, helpful hints and they are bilingual,” Lori says. “It helps make the food stretch further for our families. We put the QR code on our program materials each week for our families. The videos are an amazing tool that she’s created for us.”
Baby food was secured for families, and Heather also connects them to other resources, answers questions on everything from nutrition to expiration dates, and serves as an overall resource for the community.
“UConn Extension has helped us on multiple levels way beyond the dairy donations during Operation Community Impact,”
Lori says. “They gave us laundry cards last week for our families to get laundry done. Heather connected us with birthday bags for our residents too, these have everything a family needs to create a birthday for a family member. I can’t say enough about UConn Extension connecting us with the people we need. We’re extremely thankful for everything we’ve received.”
“Our work with Lori captures the essence of what Extension is,” Heather says. “UConn Extension helped the community, and we also fostered connections related to food security that are sustainable and will have long-term effects on the people living here.”
Article by Stacey Stearns
Job Opening: Urban Agriculture Assistant/Associate Extension Educator
Rising unemployment in the pandemic has exacerbated food insecurity for many individuals. In response to our pledge of “hands to larger service,” 4-Hers have joined with members of the Fairfield community to grow produce for local food banks.
As a Fairfield County 4-H senior with interests in natural sciences and community service, I was excited to merge my passions through volunteering at the Fairfield Garden for Food Banks. When I began my first job of leaf removal and planting, I wore my 4-H Fair t-shirt (in addition to a face mask). I soon discovered that the organizer of the project, Sharon Brodeur Pistilli, was a 4-H alumna, formerly of the Bethlehem Busy Stitchers! This connection was no coincidence, as 4-H shapes individuals with a lifelong passion for healthy living and giving back through service.
With Sharon’s energetic leadership, many others have joined the Fairfield Garden for Food Banks Initiative.
Over the past month, the group has planted kale, lettuce, pole beans, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, broccoli, eggplant, squash, radishes, and carrots. Sharon Pistilli organized donations of seedlings and gardening supplies. A Fairfield resident graciously offered her garden space. Over a dozen volunteers have helped with weeding, daily watering, and harvesting while maintaining social distancing guidelines.
On June 24, I had the chance to see the culmination of the group’s hard work, with a delivery of four gallon-size bags of fresh lettuce, three bags of kale, and radishes to Operation Hope in Fairfield. Other recipients will include Semilla Collective in New Haven and nOURish Bridgeport, which provide food to clients either in a Community kitchen or food bank capacity.
Volunteering at the garden has brought community to my life at a time when I would have otherwise felt isolated and disconnected. As I dig into soil and place seeds in the ground, I can reconnect with nature and the world around me. Creating a mound around each squash plant, which 4-H Alumna Sharon Pistilli calls a “dirt-hug,” is an opportunity to give my community a hug: to reach out to insecure families and invest both my hands and heart in larger service.
The Fairfield Garden for Food Banks is an example of how the 4-H Program nourishes the individual and fosters community. 4-Hers of multiple generations have partnered with volunteers and food banks, growing fresh produce to respond to a growing need. While apart, we have come together to maintain a garden, and in doing so, nurture our pledges to one another.
Article by Harper Treschuk, Fairfield County 4-H Member
The Lower Fairfield County Master Gardener Program wants to partner with you! Whether you are already a passionate gardener who would like to take your learning to the next level, a beginning gardener in search of a knowledgeable resource, or a community/group with a gardening need, the Master Gardener program is here for you.
The program has been growing strong for more than 40 years. Certified UConn Extension Master Gardeners complete rigorous horticultural training, including both online and classroom education followed by 60 hours of diagnostic Plant Clinic service and volunteer outreach.
Master Gardener (MG) volunteers are popping up everywhere throughout Fairfield county and across the state as they provide leadership, participate in field projects, give presentations and eagerly share their love of gardening while working side-by-side with community volunteers.
A few examples of our partnerships include the blooming Pollinator Pathway project, which started locally and is quickly extending across the Northeast. Many MGs have spearheaded Pollinator Pathway initiatives in their hometown. You can also find MGs at the root of Wakeman Town Farm’s educational programs and as volunteer guides and partners in land management at Farm Creek Nature Preserve.
Come to Plant Clinic so we can help you to weed out your gardening issues. We are available online at this time at lowerfairfieldMG@gmail.com.
Master Gardeners provide their guidance and resources at no charge to the public. As a self-funded UConn Extension program, any donations are appreciated, particularly in these challenging times. Tax deductible donations can be made. Let’s continue to grow together!
Article by: Pat Carroll UConn Extension Master Gardener Coordinator, Lower Fairfield County